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Brokenness and hope: in this week's Torah portion and in our lives

This week we're in parashat Miketz, continuing the Joseph story. I want to share a couple of beautiful teachings which I learned from the writings of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, may his memory be a blessing. (This teaching can be found in his Meta-parshiot commentary from 5757.) Genesis 42:1 reads: וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב לְבָנָיו, לָמָּה תִּתְרָאוּ. / -- "Now Jacob saw that there were rations in Egypt..."

The word translated here as "rations" (some translations say "corn") is שבר. With the dot on the upper-right of the ש, the word is shever, "rations." (R' Wolfe-Blank explains that the word "rations" means "distribution of food" -- in that sense it speaks to a kind of brokenness, e.g. a small quantity of food broken into many pieces.) It's also a homonym for another word (pronounced the same way) which means "destruction." But with the dot on the upper-left of the ש, the word is sever, "hope." Since the Torah scroll is written without dots or diacritical markings, one can creatively misread the word so that what Jacob is finding in Egypt is hope. (Though our tradition holds that the word is indeed shever, reading it creatively as sever is a classical midrashic technique for drawing new meaning out of the same letters.)

"Jacob saw that there was שבר in Egypt."

There was shever [brokenness] - that is the famine;
there was sever [hope] - that is the plenty.

There was shever [brokenness] - "Joseph was taken down to Egypt;"
there was sever [hope] - "Joseph became the ruler." (42:6)

There was shever [brokenness] - "They shall enslave and afflict them;"
there was sever [hope] - "In the end they shall go free with great wealth." (15:14)

(-- Bereshit Rabbah 25:1, quoted in The Beginning of Desire, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, p. 301.)

Jacob, writes R' Wolfe-Blank, is having a simultaneous vision of hope and of brokenness. He sees that in Mitzrayim, the children of Israel will be made into slaves -- and yet he sees that in emerging from Mitzrayim, the children of Israel will become a great nation. "Without a crisis, without 'going down to Egypt,' hope cannot arise."

This is the message of the Joseph story writ large: sometimes descent is necessary in order for ascent to be possible. Joseph had to be thrown into a pit in order to be rescued; had to be sold into slavery in order to rise up in Egypt; had to be thrown in Pharaoh's prison in order to be in a position to interpret Pharaoh's dream and achieve the power which would enable him to save the lives of all Egypt and of his own home community as well.

And in our lives, too. Sometimes you have to go through something hard in order to be able to get to something sweet. A woman at the end of pregnancy has to endure labor and birth before her child can be born. New parents have to endure weeks of sleeplessness and exhaustion before their child even learns to smile. Relationships go through tough times, and the only way out is through -- but if you trust that something better is coming on the other side, then the dark moments become bearable, because they're the path toward new light.

"This is reflected in the lights of Hanuka," writes R' Wolfe-Blank, "where we live through the darkest part of the year and light the wicks of hopefulness." As we light our Chanukkah candles tonight, may we be blessed with a vision which transforms any brokenness in our present lives into the wholeness which is coming. Chag urim sameach (a joyous festival of lights) and Shabbat shalom!